Tag Archives: philosphy

Blogging – antidote to writers’ heartbreak

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“Writers don’t go to hell”, said Anthony Howard, an English writer, “they have such hell on earth with their publishers, that when they die, they go straight to heaven.”

As a mere journalist at the time who didn’t dare call myself a writer, I shuddered at what abysses of despair that remark revealed, and  thanked my lucky stars that my fate would never be to agonise over a publisher.

Times change, and I’ve discovered what he meant… the anguish of  clumsy editors who think they understand the English language better than you do, seems to be the fate of too many writers. I remember my husband writing his umpteenth book, and on receiving the proofs, finding his manuscript had been improved by a feminist editor who’d replaced words like ‘ mankind’ with ‘personkind’, and’ brotherhood’ with ‘personhood.’

I, on the other hand, was once gifted with an editor who had just started at the publishing house, and bright- eyed and bushy-tailed, wanted to prove her worth to her new employers. After she’d completely re-written my first chapter, I suggested she might as well write the rest of the book, and they could dispense with me. They found another editor!

When asked to edit a book or an article, I use the lightest of pencils, knowing well the lacerated feelings of an author whose copy has been ‘improved’, the rhythm of sentences destroyed, words replaced, or others inserted.  And I am living proof that editors often don’t have any understanding of the book they’re working on.

I was once asked to edit a gold- plated leather- bound copy of The World Book of Rugby. My husband swears he actually saw my jaw drop when an emissary from the publisher called in and asked me to take the job on, as their previous editor had just crashed out (probably with boredom).

Conscious of the angst of all writers whose precious words are deemed  unsuitable by an insensitive know-all who has probably never written a book, I  only really checked the spellings of names and teams, grammar and punctuation – not a strong point with sports writers – or me either -and tried to master rugby terms like loosies, flankers, dropped goals and the like – which are different in the two hemispheres..

My finest hour was when I was groaning over the teams for South Africa and Australia at an important test match, and the computer that is our mind clicked into place. There were two players, Jason Small and James Little, and when I looked at the teams, something told me their names had been transposed. They were both playing in the same positions but on the wrong sides. Looking up the records I was right – a huge blunder but an easy mistake.

And that’s what proof-readers and editors are for, to my mind. They are not there to re-write the copy. How people like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce got their eccentric words, constructions and sentences past the eyes of people who think they can write better prose than the writer submitting his precious baby to them I don’t know. So there are obviously some wonderful publishers too… but it’s getting to them that’s the challenge…

So often writers wrestle with language (especially the English language), puzzle over plot and construction, assemble their research and marshal their facts, and then day after day, or night after night, write and re-write and eliminate and polish and check and then re-write and re-think, and finally offer up the fruit of this silent, dedicated labour and joy to someone who doesn’t seem to give a damn for their exquisite prose and potential masterpiece!

And then there are the reviewers and critics. When a craftsman makes a beautiful chest, people don’t look at it and say: ‘did you think of using the grain a different way?’… or: ‘ were you conscious that that leg isn’t quite straight?’  They don’t say to a painter: ‘did you really feel that composition was quite satisfying? … ‘had you really thought through that colour palette?’ or: ‘I just feel that brush-stroke there is a bit clumsy’.

A composer can write his song or his symphony without someone suggesting it would sound better in B minor instead of C minor, or that that crescendo seemed a little over the top in the context of the slow movement.  But it seems as though writing is fair game for everyone who thinks they’ve got a degree in English – or not.

The only other artists who have to endure the pain of their sensitive souls being bruised like ours, are actors and singers. And my heart bleeds for them when pundits pull their performance apart and mention that the soprano cracked on a high D, or the bass is over the hill and past his best.

And this is where blogging is saving the souls of frustrated writers. We can write and experiment and develop our style and stretch our talents without anyone cutting us down to size. Other bloggers are supportive, understanding, and discriminating, but not judgemental.

So writers who blog may now begin to savour what heaven is – writing because you have no choice but to write – and writing knowing that the fear of those precious words being mangled and misunderstood, improved or deleted, is no longer our fate. Blogging allows us to climb out of the pits of despair, rejection and criticism into the sunshine of writing for the joy of it. The gods are not crazy after all.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Chicken mousse is a lovely summer dish and it doesn’t need gelatine, which I never use. Just melt two oz of butter in a basin over a pan of boiling water. Add 3oz of breadcrumbs, half a pint of cream, salt and a good punch of nutmeg. Stir for about five minutes until it thickens. Add three eggs and three table spoons of dry sherry, beat them together and then stir in eight oz of chopped chicken. Pour the mixture into a buttered soufflé dish or similar, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. When cool, serve with a creamy mayonnaise with a chopped avocado in it. Delicious.

 

Food for thought

… Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and… life itself is a journey to be walked on foot…              Bruce Chatwin  1940- 1989.  From his Book ‘What am I doing here”.

Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.        Indian proverb

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Snails Have Feelings Too!

Not exactly breakfast at Tiffany’s but breakfast at the river cafe. And not exactly breakfast either – I preferred a freshly baked friand and two cups of coffee – my way.

I sat in the spring sunshine and watched the ducks, bottoms up, having their breakfast. The sparrows hopped so close that I could see the tiny inky black dots like a bib in front of the male birds’ necks. As I walked up the steps to the grocer, the scent of the miniature lemon bushes flanking the water-slide bisecting the flight of steps wafted past. The cherry trees were in that delicate stage of fading blossom with a faint green haze of leaf buds emerging. Altogether, so enjoyable that I decided to take my time going home.

Turning down a country road with a few houses at scattered intervals, I slowly drove down peering up long drives trying to see the houses at the end. One long and infinite drive was lined with poplars, the translucent apricot- coloured spring leaves just uncurling, shiny and shimmering with the sun striking through them, and their bunches of pale green catkins wriggling in the breeze.. On one side of the road was a meadow snowy with daisies, and a little further down, was another one sparkling with gold buttercups.

They wouldn’t gladden a modern farmer’s heart, but they did mine. Cows no longer browse on all the herbs and grasses that their system needs, they just get cultivated grass of one variety which feeds them: but this doesn’t give them the balance of minerals and herbs they instinctively seek out when left in organic fields with all these nutrients available to them.

I only know this from a farming friend whose cows needed copper injections, but when someone left the gate open, they rushed out and began browsing in the mixed grasses along the roadside. When their health improved immediately, he was converted there and then to organic farming. I also heard a radio programme last week in which an organic farmer said his vet’s bills dropped from over two thousand dollars a month, to a hundred and eighty a month when he switched over to organic.

Further down the road some horses were grazing contentedly in the sun, one beautiful palamino stretched out on his side soaking up the warmth. I hastily drew up at this curve in the road, for a big clump of deep blue Norfolk Island forget-me-nots had self-seeded and were sprawling along the verge. I snapped off two sprays which had gone to seed and put them carefully on the front seat so I could see if any seeds fell off.

Heading back I detoured to a tiny wharf on the edge of the estuary. The first settlers who came here in 1850 had landed their goods from Auckland here, and by 1880 this little wharf had been built. All the traffic into this region came up from Auckland and was decanted ashore here. A few years later, an enterprising local man built a shop out over the water next to the wharf, so that fresh goods could be taken straight off the boats, and this tiny space between cliff and sea became the hub of the area.

Now, only the restored wharf remains, and I stood there in the sunny silence watching the tide flow up the river, clear and blue. There were some huge shells down on the mud, so I climbed down the steep steps to gather a handful, magenta and maroon and plum colours merging into sherry and then cream. Big curved shells, and flat fluted ones, with not a chip or a mark on them.

As I stepped towards them, my black patent shoes sank deep into the mud, and I had a moment’s panic. But then thought, well you can always wash patent leather. I gathered a handful of shells, and then wiping the soles of my shoes in the grass, stopped in another bay with a tiny boat building industry, before driving home.

I put the forget-me-not stalks in a flower bed to dry and seed, but when I put the shells to dry in the sun, I found I’d inadvertently brought a muddy looking snail shell home too. I could see there was a live sea-snail inside, so put it carefully out of the sun to take back. It was only about an inch wide.

I was going to take it to the harbour, but then thought that was a bit unfair. If I’d been abducted accidentally by giants or aliens, I’d want to be dropped back home, so I did the same for the snail or crab.

Many people think it fanciful to attribute human feelings to other species, but since they can show fear and joy and all the other human emotions, why not credit them with other responses too? Some Christian authorities describe it as anthropomorphism, and use the term patronisingly and derogatively – okay for St Francis, but not for the rest of us!

But since we know that even a snail’s brain contains between 5,000 and 100,000 giant neurons, and they know when they’re being carted to market in a basket, and have lifted the lid in a concerted effort, broken out and escaped in recorded instances, can we really assume that any creature has no feelings or intelligence?

Elisabeth Tova Bailey wrote an exquisite book called ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’, a story about her companionship with a snail that came into her sickroom in a potted cyclamen. Snails, she discovered, lay eggs in different places, and visit them all regularly until their babies are hatched. So snails are maternal. The secret life of snails we can only guess at!

After reading her book I’ve been unable to put out snail bait in the garden. I either grow plants they don’t like, do companion planting, or in the case of petunias, put out some lettuce leaves by them at night, and they obligingly eat the lettuce leaves instead of the petunias. I know of a couple who go out late at night and gently gather up all the snails in their garden and taken them to a wild place where they can do no harm to a garden.

We don’t know what place snails occupy in the great chain of creation, but what we Are learning is that every creature seems to have a purpose. We are learning that now GM plants are bred with pesticides in them that kill off pests, good insects are also dying, and bumble bees who ingest pesticides, lose their sense of direction. In Africa where pesticides are widely used, not only are they polluting the lakes and rivers causing fish to die, and fishermen to lose their livelihoods, but the animals and birds that feed on creatures that have absorbed pesticides are also dying.

So it seems to me that every little snail and spider and insect may just matter more than we realise. That to tinker with the ecological chain, is as destructive to our planet as drilling for oil in the seas, burning down forests, clubbing baby seals to death, and all the other hostile acts that we perpetrate on our world. So I was happy to return my little captive to its home in this world – which is also our home – and the only one we will ever have.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

There was plenty of risotto left over from the day before, so before putting it into the fridge that night I had fashioned it into patties. The next day they had set so firmly I didn’t bother to roll them in flour, but just put them straight into some hot olive oil and butter, and fried both sides. The crispy outside, and soft tasty inside were delicious, and sprinkled with parmesan, I almost felt the leftovers were better than the original dish.

Food for Thought

Man is so made that he can carry the weight of twenty four hours – no more. Directly he weighs down with the years behind and the days ahead, his back breaks. I have promised to help you with … today only; the past I have taken from you …

From God Calling written by Two Listeners in the thirties. You can Google it and find the messages for each day. The language is slightly dated after 70 years, but the messages are still timely.

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Atomic Terror Started in a Tent

On July 16 in 1945,  the first atomic bomb was detonated near Alamogordo, and a few weeks later was dropped on Japan on August 6 

 The bomb that blasted

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

And scarred the whole world

Exploded unbeknown to me

 

No adult thought to tell a child

That we could all now

Be destroyed

In the twinkling of an eye

No-one mentioned

That man had become

The shatterer of worlds.

 

The savants of the western world

Toiled in the dusty desert

To create fission

They even feared

Would conflagrate our world.

 

Playing at being gods

Not in white coats and sterile labs

But in dust and heat

Stripped to the waist

In a home-made tent

Rigged up at the foot of a puerile tower

Invented to try to reduce

Unknown quantities of fall-out

In the first attempt

To detonate an atom bomb.

 

The core was carried in a valise

In the back seat of a car

And driven over a bumpy road

To where eight scientists

Waited at base camp

To assemble the plutonium pieces

In silence with their own lives in the balance

Eight men worked in deepest concentration.

 

The murderous device now ready

It was carried on a stretcher

To the car

And continued its journey

To the tent in the desert

Beneath the searing sun

Where the final team of scientists

Waited in the dim cool shelter.

 

The core was hoisted manually

Before being lowered into the waiting bomb

The only sound

The ticking Geiger counters

Occasionally an instruction

And then the monster

Was winched by hand

To the top of the shoddy tower

And a pile of mattresses

Twenty feet high

Placed beneath

In case it fell!

 

A hundred feet above the desert

In a strong wind

The brutish metal sphere

Covered with leads

Connecting sixty-four detonators

Swung in the rain and thunder

Waiting for zero hour.

 

And when it came

In the blackness of night

The darkness turned to light

A blazing sun glared on the horizon

Lighting up the desert

And a slow roar of sound

Rolled across the land.

 

As the fireball

Raced into the sky

They watched from a bunker

And some wept

Some laughed

Some were silent

One had goose pimples

As the world changed forever.

 

In this cumbersome

And homely way

Using mattresses and suitcases

The sweat of their brows

A temporary tent and teamwork

The greatest terror

The world had known

Came into being.

 

And this gives me heart.

Mere men, in their own

Unskilled and make-shift way

Can re-create with gentleness and patience

The new world

That we all ache for.

Our puny efforts are worthwhile

For God wastes nothing.

 

More Food for Thought

If it is to be, it is up to me.         Advice for life for his boys, from an anonymous English schoolmaster

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More about Books

Between six and a half and nearly nine, I lived with my grandmother. My mother had disappeared, not to be found until fifty years later, and my father was at the war from when I was a year old until nearly nine. Those two and a half years I spent with my grandmother were the happiest years of my childhood, and one of the reasons, apart from the fact that she loved and spoiled me, was that she brought loads of book into the house when she came to look after us,

I was allowed to read everything, and my range was a wide one, from Enid Blyton’s fairy story The Faraway Tree, published by instalments in a magazine called Sunny Stories, which I collected from the grocer every week, to Foxe’s Martyrs, a huge leather bound book with engraved illustrations with a piece of flimsy paper covering each one. It was a ghoulish record of the three hundred Englishmen and women who Bloody Mary had had burned at the stake for being Protestants. Foxe’s Martyrs wasn’t one of my  favourite books, but it was there.

Also there, were bound copies of Victorian ladies journals, with stories about beautiful orphans, though of noble birth, and young men with crisp, fair curls, sporting striped blazers, straw boaters and high moral character, who rescued these pure young maidens from lives of poverty and humiliation.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was also pressed on me by my grandmother, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold even more copies in England than in the US, was one of my grandmother’s favourites, and after reading it at eight, I became a fervent abolitionist. Which no doubt would have warmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s warm heart.

I never had any trouble with poor old Uncle Tom, in spite of today’s politically correct connotations. I loved him for his moral courage and kindness, which I could understand even at eight. He died for his principles, refusing to inflict on other slaves the same cruel beatings that killed him. Eliza and her child fleeing over the frozen river haunted my nightmares.

The other book on my grandmother’s shelves which shaped my life even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was John Halifax, Gentleman, written by Mrs Craik. Published in 1865, the year of the ending of the American Civil War, it was about an orphaned boy who found a home in a Quaker household, and through espousing Quaker virtues became a successful and prosperous pillar of the community. Sounds pretty boring, but even as a child, I loved him for his dignity, integrity, moral courage and loving heart. Like Uncle Tom, he never sacrificed his principles for the sake either of safety or material gain.

When my father returned from overseas, I went to live with him and our new stepmother. I never mentioned these two books, after they had laughed themselves silly when I disclosed to them in an unguarded moment that I had read Little Lord Fauntleroy. I thought maybe these two books might also be material for grownup mockery, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered that they were both well regarded classics. When I re-read John Halifax in my twenties, I realised that the principles that he had lived his life by had been the unconscious grounding of my own philosophy.

My first Christmas with them, my new parents gave me a copy of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.  Like most children of my generation and previous ones, I read it again and again, and the principles of integrity, kindness and concern for others influenced me deeply, as I’m sure it influenced so many other girls back then. Thanks to Jo March, I also began writing, and produced my own newspaper, somewhat plagiarised, until it was discovered by the adults and became a great joke.

 The last book which influenced me all my life was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a birthday present. Black Beauty, the story of a horse and his friend Ginger, and how they were exploited by human beings they trusted, until these two fine thoroughbreds had been worn down to become half-starved, broken down cab horses, entered my soul. I’ve always been thankful that we use the motor car now, instead of horses, no matter how much pollution cars cause. Black Beauty taught me to love and respect all animals and all life, including the birds of the air and the creatures in the sea.

Louisa Alcott was brought up and taught by Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, while Anna Sewell’s parents were Quakers. So when I look back at the four books that in many ways have shaped my character, I see that they were all written by women in the middle of the nineteenth century, all of whom lived in families and communities with the highest ideals and with a commitment to actually practising what they preached (Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband used to hide escaped slaves).  I feel I was so lucky that these four books came my way at the age that I was so that their philosophies became an integral part of my values and thinking.

As the years have gone by, and I’ve explored different creeds and religions, in the end, the core of them seemed to be the principles that the American Transcendentalists and the English Quakers lived by. So there’s never been any conflict between other creeds and the old beliefs that I picked up from these old books. I often wonder which are the books today that do this same job of inspiring and grounding children in the ideals and values of our civilisation.

I’ve watched the Harry Potter films with my grandchildren, and can see that it’s a struggle between good and evil. But the books that taught me, were about the immediate, down to earth, everyday situations, in which truthfulness, and kindness,  moral courage and selflessness were the standards by which the heroes and heroines lived and died in these old books. And these Victorian books were lovely – gold embossed covers, thick paper and beautiful type-faces.

There are so many well written and inspiring books for children and young adults these days, and the nature of our civilisation is such that there are actually hundreds. So instead of a handful of classics uniting people, so that they knew the same stories and shared the same experiences, today there are so many stories that people don’t have a background in common.

I remember the true story of British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who kidnapped a German general in Crete in 1944. They smuggled him up into the mountains. In the morning as the shocked and despondent general was looking over the mountains in the dawn, he quoted some lines to himself in Latin from the Roman poet Horace. Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the ode with him, and in his words:’…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Stories like this remind us of the power of books and words and art.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve been so busy with blogging and making lemon chutney with our surfeit of lemons at this time of year, that I haven’t had time to prepare a sustaining lunch for my hungry 82 year old husband. Quick onion soup will have to do, with hot rolls.

I have some lovely stock from the potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts all cooked in the same water yesterday, so that also makes me feel virtuously frugal. The soup takes four large onions sliced thinly and stewed in butter. When they’re soft, stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar browns – don’t let it turn black. Then pour in a pint and a half of stock, with either half a glass of wine, or a dash of wine vinegar. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of parsley. Caramelising the onions with the sugar gives the soup colour, a rich delicate flavour and thickens it up. Recipe for the lemon chutney in the next post!

 Food for Thought

Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’

Marcus Aurelius, born in AD 121, Philosopher, Stoic and Emperor of Rome from AD 161 to his death in AD 180

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